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Berlinale. Palast of Swords Reversed: Dispatch #2

Berlinale 2010

Things are happening now. Trust that you are able to make decisions. Release your fear of involvement now, release your need for everything to be "perfect" and in perfect order all the time - allow yourself to relax. Your affairs may be moving very quickly, so do not let the pace get you down.

Two of Swords (Reversed)

Berlin, 12.30pm Sunday
Films seen (feature length) so far : 10
Notably worthwhile : 1.
Walkouts : 1.

The tarot-card "two of swords (reversed)"—see above—has also been interpreted as "that moment when you are flying through the air, head over heels." And that pretty much describes the elation I felt an hour ago upon exiting Cinemaxx screen 7 here in Berlin, after the end of Pietro Marcello's 70-minute delight The Wolf's Mouth (La bocca del lupo, also translated as The Mouth of the Wolf.) I often feel that a film festival only really begins after one has found a decent film, one to praise and recommend without significant reservation, so for me—James Benning's installation short Tulare Road (see Dispatch #1) notwithstanding—the 60th Berlinale only began on its fourth day. I feel strangely relieved and relaxed, the dark clouds of pessimism that had been gathering through Thursday, Friday and Saturday (why am I here in Berlin? where are the worthwhile movies? can't I find a better way of spending my days?) are suddenly dispersed.

The Wolf's Mouth is an oblique, impressionistic documentary-fiction hybrid of the kind I usually have limited patience with, but which here works beautifully from beginning to end. Indeed, from the very first frame—a medium-definition digital-video shot of a ship emerging into view from behind a rugged harbour wall—I sensed that I was in very good hands indeed. And what followed certainly didn't let me down. The film is a portrait of the genially scruffy Genoa waterfront and two of its more colourful denizens: Enzo, a macho-looking former jailbird, and his beloved Mary, a transsexual former junkie. Their unlikely romance is related in voice-over with extracts from their love-letters (recorded on audio and passed back and forth while Enzo was inside), interspersed with poetic narration about the intricate interactions between past and present. Marcello and his editor Sara Fgaier have tracked down a wealth of archival material showing Genoa over the past century, weaving these images—many of them quite breathtakingly beautiful and transcendent—in and out of a tale of grand passion that is at once piercingly specific and totally timeless. The last scene, a black and white sequence that looks like it was shot in the 1930s, showing kids playing blind man's buff on the shoreline, had the hairs standing up on the back of my arms, and I'm not ashamed to say they were tears in my eyes. Tears of gratitude, tears of relief.

Afterwards I was amazed to find that, rather than the seasoned master in his 60s I was expecting—some underappreciated Italian veteran in the mould of Terence Davies or Peter Schreiner (and The Wolf's Mouth can certainly be compared with both Of Time and the City and Toto in terms of subject-matter and sheer skill of execution)—Marcello is a young buck of only 33. This is a really terrific feature-length debut for Marcello, who previously made a handful of shorts. Easy to see why it won the top prize at the Turin film festival last November, the first Italian film to achieve that honour, and it'll be fascinating to see where Marcello goes from here—especially if he keeps in cahoots with the estimable Ms. Fgaier.

As previously mentioned, the last three days have been pretty depressing. Yesterday I saw only Black Bus, a decidedly so-so Forum documentary about the plight of Israeli women, plus Submarino, the supposed "comeback" from Danish ex-wunderkind Thomas Vinterberg, whose Festen (1998) came out on top of the pile when I worked out my favourite movies of the 1990s (edging out Being John Malkovich, The Game and Robinson In Space, just in case anyone's interested). It now seems safe to describe Festen as a miraculous fluke: Submarino is a desperately dour tale of two Copenhagen siblings whose lives have been ruined by childhood trauma—in their 30s, we find one of them a bad-ass alcoholic, the other a junkie so hollow-eyed he looks like he's just stumbled in from Shaun of the Dead. The title is never explained or referred to—Brothers (Grim) might have been closer to the mark, if the film hadn't been so monotonously and ostenatiously downbeat and po-faced.

The Submarino press-screening I attended featured numerous walkouts and the general word about it has been pretty negative—ditto the two main headline-grabbers here, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. I won't be seeing either (I can catch them at home and am concentrating on Forum stuff) but popped into the press-conference room just before Scorsese, Leo DiCaprio and co. were due to enter. I didn't linger long, repelled by the oppressively Ballardian atmosphere of a neon-lit area featuring banks of photographers photographing each other and bad-tempered journalists jostling for seats as they rehearsed what would, if my experience of Berlinale press-conferences was any guide, be questions of asinine servility ("Mr. Scorsese, how does it feel to be such a genius?" "Mr. DiCaprio, how do you stay so young-looking?").

I may have exited the Shutter Island bonanza in double-quick time, but otherwise I have been a "good boy" regarding walkouts: the only one to date being the Argentinian misfire Counting of the Damages on Thursday. That said, I would gladly have fled the auditorium after a reel of Romanian Forum title Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man (Portretul luptatorului la tinerete), a quite unbearably tedious 163-minute slog through the travails of the country's anti-communist guerilla movement from 1949 to 1957. A textbook example of a young director presuming that an extended running-time automatically confers high seriousness and notable artistic merit upon a film, it had me wishing that its noble freedom-fighters would be hunted down and picked off by their villainous foes sooner rather than later, so I could finally be liberated from my confinement (I had to stay till the end as I was reviewing the picture for a magazine.) I've been numbingly bored in many movies over the years, but this one was different—to pass the time I found myself dismantling the cinema infrastructure, as the armrest came loose when the person next to me walked out, to the point that I was able to uncouple it from its frame and tuck it away under the seat for safety's sake.

It hasn't been all movies here, by the way. On Friday night I had planned a once-in-a-lifetime double bill of former Werner Herzog star Bruno S (performing his weekly gig at the Stadtklause pub down the road—see the 2009 dispatches) followed by veteran British punk/post-punk combo The Fall, who were playing at the Maria club near the Ostbahnhof. As it turned out, providence intervened to stymie my grand scheme, as the Stadtklause barman informed me that Bruno wasn't playing as he had some kind of formal role to perform as part of the Berlinale—perhaps he was invited to the special screening of Fritz Lang's newly-restored Metropolis.

The Fall, however, were present and correct, coming on after midnight and showcasing their upcoming album before delighting a packed crowd with a selection of older material, including the 1979 classic Psykick Dancehall, though sadly nothing from the 1987 compilation In Palace of Swords Reversed that inspired the title of these dispatches. At 1:30am I emerged from the sweaty confines of Maria, watched the ice floes on the frozen River Spree only feet away, and trudged back up the snowy slope towards my bed and optimistic reveries of a decent Berlinale movie. Some dreams, as we know, do come true.

“Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man” actually is one of the festival’s best films. Rather problematic, politically. But very smart and daring aesthetically. Just saying.
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The Fall at Berlinale, now that’s a festen!
Ekkehard. I like the way you subtly deploy “actually” in a such a “you-are-wrong-and-I-am-right” manner. Since writing my review I have heard about the controversy that has blown up over the way it glorifies the protagonist, who has been accused of anti-semitism. However, leaving aside these issues, which you hint at it your post, I don’t think ‘Portrait’ hangs together as a film – I don’t see what is so “smart and daring” about driving one’s audience exitwards with the thudding monotony of one’s structure. One can evoke the tedium and boredom of guerilla warfare in a film in many more ways than making the audience feel tedium and boredom.

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